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The Work Society and the Work Religion

by Ernst Lohoff Monday, Jan. 23, 2006 at 9:41 AM

Work is only a part or fragment of life. Where it becomes everything as a steamroller or religion, it leads to idiotism where social questions and reproduction are ignored.


The crisis of the work society is obvious. Belief in new jobs for hundreds of thousands is unrealistic.

By Ernst Lohoff

[This article is translated from the German on the World Wide Web,]

Work ends in the work society. This was regarded as settled in the late seventies and early eighties in the alternative-left milieu and at sociologist conventions. The revolution of microelectronics changes mechanical typewriters and the commodity labor into unmarketable anachronisms.

The uncoupling of wealth production from labor must lead to a fundamental “change in social values.” A new “post-material orientation” (Ronald Ingelhart) can already be seen everywhere. An “activity society” (Ralf Dahrendorf) appears that consciously breaks with the primacy of paid work.


A quarter of a century later, the first part of the prognosis is confirmed. The mass of human material that is unusable for globalized capital and superfluous for the work society grows.

This development coincides with an intensification of the dictates of the work society instead of its relativization. The work society was never emphasized as much as today. The more precarious the long-term perspective for workers on the labor market, the more resolutely everyone feels obliged to see the successful management of his “human capital” as the greatest happiness on earth. The crisis of the work society became a reality and disappeared from public debate.

The dominant consciousness sees inflexibility and social parasitism everywhere. “Washouts in pin-stripe suits” who led businesses into cul-de-sacs are highlighted along with encrusted social state structures that must be unconditionally broken up. The idea that the work society imperative could be the real problem cannot be mentioned any more.

Since time immemorial, people have been accustomed to the political class fiddling with empty formulas and lies. However the political class takes a step further today and only refers to the social reality in a hallucinatory way. The government, opposition and the assisting “experts” only know one Modus operandi, the unreal. The deconstructivists only interpret away the world of crises. Cleaning up or decontaminating reality was central under Gerhard Schroeder and Peter Hartz.

The worldwide economic structure cracks. In Germany, people have heard nothing about this amid the most provincial positional debates. Since the end of the New Economy, the bottom has been taken out of the work society while wild reformers bluster about new jobs for hundreds of thousands.

In the recession, the first labor market should now incorporate the people who found a place in the second labor market during the casino capitalist boom. The government declares war on unemployment. However in a strange renaming, this war does not go beyond a war against the unemployed. The chancellor closes the employment offices and reopens them as job centers. The chancellor does not know any unemployed persons, only personal companies and employees of personal service agencies. That their weekly working hours usually lies at zero hours is hard to see in the small print.


Not only the political class flees into denial of reality. What yesterday was a twisted theory is a vulgar social practice today. Signs of the real substitute for the real. All reality dissolves in discourse reality. Half of the economy depends on psychology. We are told to think positively and ignore the other half.

These are bad times for satirists. A people of real satirists make them superfluous. These are also bad times for ideology critics as long as ideology describes false consciousness. The zeitgeist or spirit of the times has much to do with a ghost parade and little to do with consciousness.

His amanetic-hallucinatory state cannot be reduced to a single cause. It can only be described as a mixture of different anesthetics and the result of a whole motive cocktail. The inheritance of the casino capitalist phase is certainly one of the main ingredients. In the eighties and nineties, the work society successfully minimized its fundamental crisis at least for its core personnel. At that time it finished the work of art of making the anticipation of future work into the foundation of present work.

The pipe dreams of the IT-branch (in the supposed future sectors) provided an unparalleled boom and lucrative jobs for a vast multitude. The dynamic of fictional capitalization supported by these sectors, the capitalization of expectations, created a considerable economic growth and artificial employment.

This economic wonder of the 20th century is over. The material substrata of simulation has dissolved, namely the belief in the future of the work society monetarized in private credit creation.

However the corresponding forms of consciousness have not gone up in smoke. In the turn to hallucination, simulative thinking elevates itself above its real conditions as a substitute. After the dream of new capitalism, the deregulation of total individualized competition as an eternal capitalist spring was discredited. The phantom should be renewed through generalization. When everyone, above all the forgotten losers, is committed to complete self-adjustment as market subjects that in the past was a special privilege of the so-called winners, then everything will be good!


A sadistic moment vibrates in the post-casino-capitalist spirit dance. Everyone must do what the “top performer” did and does – without gratifications. In this revenge on the broken and revenge for everyone, hopes are hardly distinguished from nightmares.

This alone cannot explain the superstitious readiness to accept cuts in the social net. Auto-suggestion is more important. Defeat is reversed into a victory in a society where the poses of the autistic victor and the pressure to sell oneself have become second nature.

The “new independent persons” of the avant-garde sectors teach us today that flexibility makes for successful persons in vocations and consumption. Top employees take to the barricades with income losses of a few ridiculous percent. The new IT-independent person remains cool and casually accepts a 50% cut of his income. He probably makes a sovereign figure in eating out of the dumpster.

Advertising has long recognized the signs of the times. The figure of the “new loser,” as the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper calls him, gets ahead in life by imagining himself in a win-win situation under all circumstances. Ikea is proud how the housing crisis allows new problem-free accommodation to the surface area of a prison cell. The slogan “stinginess is cool” makes the rounds. That this new art of auto-suggestion actually spreads “one to one” in everyday life is even more spine-chilling than these aestheticizing neo-ascetic acts.

Two years ago at a birthday party, I was annoyed about a guest active in the advertising branch because he bragged that none of the bottles of wine cost less than 30 marks…


In ancient Greece, the term “idiot” described persons who only worried about their personal affairs and were indifferent toward all far-reaching questions concerning the polis. This idiotism term deserves to be rediscovered in its old meaning.

As an analytical category, idiotism describes the ability characteristic of the post-modern subject to fade out all larger contexts in thinking and treat all experience not involved with selling oneself as non-existent. The term identifies what the process of social conformity commonly celebrated as individualization means through isolation on the plane of consciousness.

The transformation of the church of work into the greatest esoteric sect of all times and the galloping idiotization process cry for a resolute counter-position. Its first challenges would be simple. It has to show what many know but no one wants to know. The emperor is stark naked. The work society cannot be saved and there isn’t the least reason to save it.

The pressure to sell oneself does not rhyme with happiness and self-realization. A good life begins where the winner’s sneer ends. The debate around the crisis of the work society that began 20 years ago could be revived again not to relativize the rule of work but as an attack on the logic of competition, economic commercialization and labor.

By allying the social question with criticism of work, the left could find its way out of its persistent defensiveness and marginalziation. However the left misses this chance. Committed to the work religion, the reformist wing is afraid of overturning the official round table and at best receives a little place in the baby’s chair.

The so-called radical left plays an even more miserable role. It appears wildly resolved to play the avant-garde in the general globalization process. In official discourse, social reality disappears in the countless talk shows where absurd employment programs are seriously discussed. The social question and reproduction simply do not occur in the left oriented in ideology criticism and culturalist-post-modern idiotism.

Most people face precarious conditions and an uncertain future. These questions are treated as private problems, not social problems. The social romanticism of the seventies has capsized into its opposite. The mob always lurks behind the social question. Whoever faces it is a reformist in the best case and approaches anti-Semitism in the worst case.

The batch of crises of the early 21st century seems to intensify this development without neutralizing the mechanisms. The end of the magnificence of the New Economy coincides temporally with processes of decay revealing the violent core of commodified subjectivity striking back on the West. The post-modern culturalist “Don’t worry, be happy” in the old form is put in question.

The new barbarism is only an occasion to escape… Scene members swear by individual solutions in competition while western normality dissolves…The rabbit runs toward the unreal.

Only one conclusion remains for an anti-capitalism that takes itself and criticism of work seriously: The little leftist side table has to be overturned outside the great social roundtable where the non-existing future of the work society is discussed.

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